There are some things in life that are difficult to talk about, regardless of how long ago they happened. Cory Brandan, the vocalist of Georgia metalcore outfit NORMA JEAN is well aware of this as the quintet’s seventh studio album, Polar Similar, is an example of how facing your fears can yield the greatest reward. The record is a succession of 13 tracks that tell a story with the sole aim of capturing an emotion, or perhaps more accurately, all of the emotions that accompanied the abusive relationship Brandan found himself in decades ago. Lyrics from the track “Nexus” (“I don’t wanna be inside while all the walls are closing in”) solicit memories of nostalgic agony and those sharp feelings of helplessness that are all too relatable to anyone who’s been in a turbulent relationship.
Recorded at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Polar Similar was created in a hollow house where the isolation that surrounded it, provided the perfect environment to mirror the eerie, atmospheric energy of its content. The album is a sonic deviation from the group’s previous efforts while still remaining true to two decades of Norma Jean’s history. Experiments like collecting sounds from outside the studio is evidence of their growth as musicians, but more importantly it helps position this personal reflection as a true echo of real life. Experience and maturation have delivered a melodic and polished record, without compromising that heaviness that makes your chest cavity reverberate.
With Polar Similar set to be released on September 9th — just three days shy of the 10th anniversary of their 2006 epic Redeemer — we caught up with Cory Brandan to discuss the band’s return to Solid State, drawing inspiration from Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come and the value of reliving experiences to “turn them into something good and not let it be this sad, wasted part of life”.
In September, you guys will be releasing a new album titled Polar Similar. How would you compare it to your older work?
I think the stuff we’ve done before transitions to this new record. I feel like we’ve always taken things from what we’ve learned — things we’ve experimented with and then tried to perfect and continue to experiment with while working on newer ideas in the process. The new album is a step up from what I think we were trying to achieve with Wrongdoers because I feel like that record is more or less transitional to this one, in an almost sacrificial way. The emotion in this record is one of the main things we focused on — like getting an emotion across with the music — and I think we did a pretty good job.
You guys recorded your new material at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota — a space that’s tucked away inside of a house in an old-growth forest. How did the atmosphere contribute to the overall feel of the album?
It was huge; it changed everything. Usually when we go in to record an album, we have a week in the studio to finalize ideas and do pre-production. With this record, we were fully prepared to start tracking as soon as we got there because our time was pretty limited. We didn’t know what to expect from the studio, except that some of our favourite bands like Nirvana and Failure had recorded there. We had seen pictures of it but it’s actually this really big two-story house with six bedrooms, an indoor pool and a huge dining area. A couple 100 feet behind it is a studio and that’s where we did the tracking.
We were blown away by the size of just the house itself and that’s not even including the studio. The whole thing has this old, remodeled, ’60s feel to it with this hollow, creepy vibe. We worked in the house so much; we placed mics everywhere in the house and studio just to get the sound of the rooms and try to get that creepy vibe on the record. We put mics in the pool room and we would do really reverb, echo-y sounding guitar tracks and stuff just to get that vibe.
We even put microphones outside and would just blast the guitar on the bottom floor to capture the sound that would resonate through the doors. Also, there was this stream running out there so you’d hear that and then you’d also hear this faint, guitar blast and it created a cool effect – a very calm sound from the stream, but with this really loud, distorted guitar coming through. We experimented with the house in a lot of different ways because we spent so much time in there.
Sharing something you’ve written must always be an exercise in vulnerability, but is there something cathartic and healing when it becomes this personal?
For sure. I think that’s the way I’ve always felt about music. For every record that I’ve been a part of, I have written about something that I’m familiar with and that others can relate to as well — not just something that’s so personal that no one gets it. For me, going on stage, performing, and writing music has always been a very cathartic sense of release. I remember the very first punk rock show I ever went to — it was in the early to mid ’90s and I was a young teenager, and I remember seeing the band Scream for the first time. They were a really loud rock band and they were so passionate about what they were singing that they couldn’t just sing it. They needed to yell and that’s how I’ve always seen the genre.
Nowadays, screaming vocals is a thing you do and it’s a vocal style, but that’s not how I grew up seeing it as it was always an emotional release. Between songs these guys would be yelling “This song is about this and this and this” and then they would go into it, and I remember thinking about how it was so cool and how I wanted to do that too. That’s where it comes from for me and I don’t know any other way.
Well, in terms of songwriting, the experiences Polar Similar is based upon took place a few decades ago. Why did you choose to write about it now?
Some of the songs definitely do come from an abusive relationship that I was in a very long time ago but I feel very disconnected from it because it happened a very long time ago. It has been a while and my life isn’t like that anymore. I’ve changed a lot and I’ve grown from it. I had a baby around that time too and now that baby is a 22-year-old (laughs), so it has been a while. I’ve disconnected enough from it to know that I didn’t want that section of my life to be a waste.
I think one of the biggest parts about being in an abusive relationship is that you don’t know that you’re in one. People always say “Well, why don’t they just leave?” and it’s like well, because they’re in love and they don’t know what’s going on around them. It’s kind of like being in a cave and you see a glimmer of light in the opening, and you get out and you’re like “What the heck was I doing in there for so long?”.
I feel like now I can turn that experience into something good and not let it be this sad, wasted part of my life where I just felt sorry for myself. I want someone to get something out of it and hopefully they do. It’s my goal to be more open about things like that, where in past records I was really cryptic. For this new one, I wanted to be more open with saying what the songs deal with so you can look for that throughout the record because maybe some people can get something out of it.
You say you want to be more straightforward, but it seems like many of the lyrics on the album are still rather vague or up for interpretation.
Absolutely. I like the idea of writing something that is personal but in a way that isn’t so specific to me. Well, it’s all specific to me, but I’ve tried to say it in a way that anyone can relate to if they need to. I remember growing up, I based everything on music I listened to that I was inspired by. I’m talking about Stone Temple Pilots right now, not some super deep band or anything (laughs), but I loved it and I thought the songs were about me. For certain bands, I’d read the lyrics and I’d transform them to be about certain things in my life and even when I hear those songs now, I still think about those times in my life. When an artist says “This song is about this and only this”, it kind of ruins it for me so I try to leave my songs open-ended so people can take whatever they want from them.
Is the title Polar Similar a play on the phrase “polar opposites”?
Yes, and to me the idea of “polar similar” makes more sense than “polar opposites”. We were thinking about a title and that came to me as I thought of it in a visual way. Think about polar opposites — I visualize two poles, separated by a circle, or maybe you’d see a planet with two poles coming out of either side — I looked deeper into it and decided those poles probably meet in the middle. It really opened up this big idea, that there’s lots of things in the world or between people that are unseen and we’re all connected in a lot of ways that we don’t see.
The album is based on your experience in an abusive relationship, but there’s also a lot of outer space imagery throughout the song titles. What was the inspiration behind that?
It was really to try to show that there is a theme throughout the record. We specifically wrote the album with a track in mind and usually, we would just write a bunch of songs and try to figure out what the tracklisting was going to be. This time we wrote it with the whole record in mind and the titles are just to tie into the idea that there is a theme, and it comes from the titles in a way. Some titles are planet-based and some are people-based, so it revolves around people and relationships and the planet as a whole.
The album is also divided into four parts. Is this symbolic in any way?
For sure. All of it ties into the ongoing theme. There’s a very set in stone way to be in a band these days — you take some promo photos so there are faces to go with the record, and you release a couple of singles and do a video. You do all these things and I really want to try to find ways to step out of it because I’m very bored with it. For us to do that, we wanted Polar Similar to really tell a story and be disconnected from us as people. I don’t know what else to say other than that, but the main thing is we really want people to listen to the record from beginning to end and see what it does for them, rather than just hear the single and stop there. Everything will make sense when you listen to it like that.
Were there any artists you looked towards for inspiration during the writing process?
Refused have been back for a bit as they’ve been doing some shows and they’re one of my favourite bands. I thought about them a lot because they put out this insane record that changed the way people were writing music in the heavy music scene and they literally named the record The Shape Of Punk To Come, like jerks (laughs). I thought it was such a cool concept — like to write a record and state what you think of it before it’s even done, like “What’s this record going to be and what’s it going to say to people?”. All of those themes we talked about and writing the record from front to back with a purpose really does come from that idea of boldly saying what the record is before it’s even released. Obviously, we didn’t want to be copycats so we didn’t do the exact same thing but it’s the same basic idea.
What made you guys decide to return to Solid State Records for this album?
There are a lot of business deals that go down in the background of the music industry. There are a lot of contracts being sent back and forth, and everything is intellectual property, so there’s nothing to actually hold and no product to hand over. There are a lot of weird things bands have to do to make those deals and when it comes down to it, bands should be very careful with who they work with and make sure they do what’s best for themselves because at the end of the day, they’re the ones that are on tour for months and recording away from home and away from their families.
At the end of the day, we wanted to work with the label that gives us the best deal, but also we had to consider the people who are working there and that’s an invaluable item. It’s literally like having a sixth member who’s there to work for your band and to push a record and to believe in it. Solid State made us a really good offer, but they also have people who are passionate about our music and what we’re doing. Their ideas were just really on par with what we’re doing and what we wanted. It’s really the team of people — that’s what it comes down to.
Norma Jean has been a band for almost 20 years and with that in mind, what has been the most rewarding aspect of contributing to such a large genre and community?
We’ve done so many cool festivals over the years; we just did this European festival run where we shared the same stage with Slayer, Megadeth, Alice Cooper, and all of these crazy bands. I can always look back on that and say “Yes, this is cool. My life is cool and good things are happening”. But the coolest thing that happens… the best thing and the most rewarding thing is that we can be just five regular dudes with our own problems and histories, but when we write songs in a sweaty garage somewhere or in a dungeon with a light in the middle of the room and no windows — someone we might never meet will be affected by that music.
Something happens to them or changes in them because of a song or a lyric or the record as a whole and that’s the coolest thing for me. I do get the chance to meet those people sometimes and they’re always very sincere when they tell us how much the band means to them and I will never get over that. I think it’s just the coolest thing that happens with music. It speaks to people in ways that you didn’t intend for it to and it has its own life and it will outlive us forever. There’s no going back and changing it once it’s out there, so we have to make sure it’s right. We have to put the time and work into it to make sure it’s the right thing.